ROB SCHMITZ (China 1996-98) is the China correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, the largest business news program in the U.S. with more than 12 million listeners a week. He has reported on a range of topics illustrating China’s role in the global economy, including trade, politics, the environment, education, and labor.
In 2012, Schmitz exposed fabrications in Mike Daisey’s account of Apple’s Chinese supply chain on “This American Life,” and his report headlined that show’s much-discussed “Retraction” episode. The work was a finalist for the 2012 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award. He has won two national Edward R. Murrow Awards and an award from the Education Writers Association for his reporting on China. Click to hear His Rob’s “Marketplace” stories.
We emailed each other over the course of a few weeks for this interview, and I was helped with questions from a press releases from Crown Publishing about Rob’s new book on Shanghai, Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along A Shanghai Road. This is his first book.
Rob, where are you from in the States?
I’m from Elk River, Minnesota. I attended University of Minnesota-Duluth for undergrad (B.A.A., Spanish Teaching/ESL teaching minor, 1996), and after the Peace Corps to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism (M.S., 2001)
You went to China with the Peace Corps. Where were you assigned?
I lived in Zigong, Sichuan Province, China, and my assignment was teaching English at a rural Teachers College.
China RPCVs have become major journalists. As I understand it, there is you and Peter Hessle, as well as Craig Simons who wrote Devouring Dragon. Your book is actually the sixth China book from the group. And I understand your wife, Lenore Chu, has a book coming out next year. Craig’s wife, Jen Lin-Liu, has already published two books. Counting all of China 3 (1996-98) PCVs and their wives, that’s ten China books so far . . . what about that?
Yes, there were three of us from that group who became journalists: Pete Hessler, Craig Simons, and me. I think it was a combination of being part of a small, tight-knit group — there are only 13 of us, and we’re still good friends — and having an opportunity to live in rural Chinese cities that had seen few foreigners during a time when these places were finally opening up to the rest of the world. In many ways, each of us played a role in that “opening up” process, and I think that’s why the experience had such a profound impact on us. Those two years inspired me to start writing. And journalism was a natural culmination of that passion.
After the Peace Corps what was the track you took to become a journalist for NPR?
I taught Spanish at a middle school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, for a brief period, then worked for the American Field Service as a study abroad participant advisor, before returning to Sichuan province as a freelance journalist in 2000.
Maureen Orth, who was a PCV in Columbia and is now a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, says that being a PCV made her a better journalist. Would you agree, based on your experience of living and working as a teacher in Sichuan Province?
It was my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural China that inspired me to become a journalist in the first place. I was in the third group of Volunteers sent to China — there were only 13 of us — and my sitemates and I were assigned to a city — Zigong — that not only had never had Volunteers before, but had not had foreign residents since before the Communists took over China in 1949. Our presence was carefully monitored not only by the officials at the college we taught at, but by everyone we came into contact with whenever we left our apartments. Simple trips to the wet market became public events as crowds of people surrounded us, scrutinizing and making amusing comments about our every move. This was before the Internet was available in China and phone calls were prohibitively expensive, keeping us isolated from the outside world. Living in Zigong felt like being sent to a faraway planet — each day brought dozens of new and unpredictable experiences that would bewilder, amuse, and inspire us. It was hard not to be moved by day-to-day life there, and my yearning to capture these rare and fascinating moments led me to start writing, and later, when I was able to speak Chinese, to begin to talk to my Chinese friends about their lives and their dreams.
Tell us a little bit about how you got to where you are today?
I’m the China Correspondent for Marketplace, which airs on NPR affiliates throughout the country. Yes; I was inspired to become a journalist and writer through my Peace Corps experience. But I have always had a single-minded determination to see the world, learn languages, and learn about other cultures. Much of that comes from growing up in rural Minnesota, where I was endlessly fascinated by the natural world. It was pretty much all I had in a town of a couple thousand people. As I grew up, that curiosity evolved into a desire to learn about other cultures, and that, in turn, spurred my interest in journalism.
I was in China only once — centuries ago, 1979. As Peter Hessler told me, “Every time I return to China it is a different country.” What do you see from living there, mostly in terms of rural China, about the changes in the nation? And are the changes in rural China as dramatic there as in the urban areas?
The scale is certainly different, but the changes in much of rural China over the past twenty years have indeed been dramatic. I had a chance to return to Zigong a few years ago, a visit I chronicled in a Marketplace story, and a former Chinese colleague from the college I taught at helped me make hotel arrangements prior to arriving. In 1996 when I arrived to Zigong, the city had two hotels foreigners were allowed to stay at, and there were certainly no foreign restaurants or shops. When he called me back, he told me he had booked a room in a five-star hotel above a Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. A week later, I arrived to discover that the college had moved from its campus in what was now called the “Gucheng,” the “ancient city,” to a much larger one across the river where the city had constructed glass and steel office towers and residential high rises adorned with Romanesque statues and fountains. Back when I lived there, the area across the river was filled with terraced rice paddies and the occasional water buffalo.
The changes to my Chinese friends in Zigong were even more fascinating. Back in the ’90s when I lived there, my colleagues lived in rundown hovels inside gray Stalinist block apartments. They now lived in high rises across the street from the school and everyone owned a car. Some had divorced (unthinkable in the ’90s), some had converted to Christianity, and some had struck it rich. One former colleague, now a dean at the school, gave me a ride to dinner in her new Audi sports car. When I was there as a Volunteer in the ’90s, I tutored an 11-year-old boy named Zeng Yang, whose parents lived above my apartment. I was the first foreigner he had ever seen, and he was an excellent student. Now he’s 30 years old and he’s a famous artist who lives in the provincial capital. His paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars each, and he’s represented by agents in New York and Paris. I couldn’t help but think if I would have been better off had I stuck around after my Peace Corps service.
I have been reading lately that there has been a shift in the “ideological and organizational direction of the Communist Party and that this is beginning to influence both China’s reform agenda and its foreign relations.” As an example, when I read an article in the New York Review of Books by Orville Schell that last August the financial journalist for the business magazine Caijing was detained after reporting on government manipulation of China’s stock markets and forced to denounce his own coverage on China Central Television. What’s your take on that, and how, if at all, has that influenced your reporting?
I agree with Orville that there is an ideological shift influencing how China reforms its economy and how it interacts with other nations, but I think it’s too early to tell whether this bodes poorly for China’s long-term future. Many Western observers are disturbed by the tone of Xi Jinping’s governance – his administration has cracked down on media, lawyers, and, most recently, foreign NGOs – and many Western economists I know don’t have much confidence that the current administration has a handle on how to reform China’s financial system. Many point to the massive outflow of capital from China as proof that members of China’s elite are moving their money and their families abroad. But I’m not sure Xi Jinping is worried too much about what foreign observers or China’s elite think when he takes stock of the challenges facing his country. Even though much of rural China has developed quickly, there are still 200 million Chinese who live below the World Bank’s poverty line. When you examine Xi Jinping’s campaigns since he took control of the Party three years ago, most are aimed at improving the lives of China’s poorest people. This move is less altruistic than it is survivalist. Xi knows full well the history of modern China, and he knows China’s poorest residents were the original revolutionaries from his own party who overthrew the wealthy and corrupt to gain control of China more than 75 years ago.
Let’s talk about your book, Street of Eternal Happiness. What about Shanghai that interested you so much to write a book about the city?
I first visited Shanghai in 1998. I’d just finished my Peace Corps tour and Shanghai was my last stop before heading home. I remember having a drink with another PCV on the roof of the historic Peace Hotel and gazing across the river at what looked like a giant tinker toy: the newly built Oriental Pearl Tower, and behind it, a skyline filled with cranes. It seemed the entire city was a construction site. I had just spent two years in the impoverished countryside, and that final trip to Shanghai showed me a preview of things to come, a new side to a country that was on the verge of becoming the fastest growing economy in the world. Returning in 2010 with my wife and young son, modern Shanghai had been completed: towering skyscrapers as far as the eye could see, bullet trains arriving from all over China, one of the world’s most extensive metro systems. The enormity of 21st-century Shanghai almost made New York City seem quaint.
How did the book come about, what started you thinking of writing about one street in this modern metropolis?
It started as a series of radio stories that I reported over the span of a year for Marketplace. My aim was to break away from China’s rapid-fire news cycle so that I could control the pace and focus on the lives of everyday people — their hopes, dreams, fears, and how they navigated this incredible change that was happening all around them. They told me fascinating stories full of joy, heartbreak, and drama — all the elements of a great book were right in front of me, and it started with a simple walk outside my door to talk to my neighbors. After a while, I realized these weren’t just local stories. They were universal narratives that went far beyond Shanghai. I learned you can write about the people along a single street in a single city, but sooner or later, their stories will take you farther afield. Everyday Chinese in the 21st-century are part of a larger global community, just like Shanghai has returned to its status as a global city.
Okay, talk a little bit about how Shanghai resembles New York City at the turn of the 20th century — a global city in the midst of a renaissance. What are the similarities?
One of the most popular literary genres in New York City at the turn of the 20th century was the etiquette guide. Sure enough, more than a century later, the Shanghai local government published its own version in the run-up to Shanghai’s 2010 World’s Fair. It was full of amusing words of advice to local residents about how to properly behave in social situations: “Close your mouth when you chew your food and don’t make any licking or smacking sounds. It’s not polite to blow your nose or belch during a meal,” and other useful suggestions, such as warning readers not to cut in line, spit, or wear pajamas in public, all fairly common habits among city residents at the time.
The authors were Shanghai city officials and their advice was, for the most part, directed at the city’s migrant workers, a population that makes up nearly half of Shanghai and hails from all over China. The cultural and linguistic differences reminded me of the melting pot of New York City at the turn of the 20th century. In both the Gilded Age in America and China’s Golden Age a century later, outsiders were working hard to assimilate to their new urban surroundings.
I guess my last questions would be about your life in Shanghai. You wife is Chinese. Did you meet when you were a PCV or when you returned to China?
Actually, my wife Lenora is Chinese-American, born and raised in a suburb of Houston, Texas. We were classmates at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism two years after I returned from the Peace Corps. Lenora’s an incredible writer and she’s writing, as you mentioned, a book about China’s education system that will be published by Harper Collins.
I guess my last question would be, “What is it like living full time in China with two children? And how are you kids fitting in the Shanghai life? Are they in school?
My wife Lenora and I first arrived to Shanghai with our 18-month-old toddler, Rainey. Two years later, our second son, Landon, was born at a local hospital. Our two boys consider Shanghai their home. Both are bilingual. They attend local Chinese schools where the instruction is in Mandarin, and they return each day to an English-speaking household. It’s been a great adventure, raising them in China, and I think it’s been especially good for their intellectual development.
There are downsides, though. The air pollution in Shanghai — while not as bad as Beijing’s — is still dangerous at times, and that’s a constant concern for us as parents. We’ve purchased three refrigerator-sized air filtration machines to keep the indoor air quality as low as we can during the high-pollution winter season, and the boys wear air masks outside when they go to school on the worst days (roughly a third of the year). Sports practices are sometimes cancelled due to the pollution, too. The psychological impact this degree of pollution has on people is profound. At times, we feel we’re stuck in our little bubble of an apartment, 16 floors above the city. Each summer, our sons very much look forward to returning to the United States so that they can breathe freely, run around, and hike.
Now I should let you go back to work for NPR. Many thank, Rob.
Thank you John for your time and the chance to talk about China and the book.
Street of Eternal Happiness: Big City Dreams Along a Shanghai Road
Rob Schmitz (China 1996-98)
$28.00 (hardcover), $13.99 (Kindle)